Who Were the Women at the Empty Tomb?

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This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.

In our book The Final Days of Jesus Andreas Köstenberger and I try to provide some help in understanding the identity and  role of Jesus’s female disciples, especially with respect to their discovery of the empty tomb and their eyewitnesses testimony to the risen Christ.

There are a number of things about the narrative of the women that can perplexing when we seek to harmonize their actions across the four accounts. The sheer number of Marys sometimes adds to the confusion! And it even can be difficult to untangle the Greek grammar. For example, is John 19:25 about three women or four?

A. ”[1] his mother and [2] his mother’s sister, [3] Mary the wife of Clopas, and [4] Mary Magdalene”

{or}

B. ”[1] his mother and [2] his mother’s sister, [that is,] Mary the wife of Clopas, and [3] Mary Magdalene”

Under option A, the reference is likely to Salome (which would make the sons of Zebedee—James and John—the cousins of Jesus). However, option B is more likely, meaning that Mary the wife of Clopas is Mary’s sister (or sister-in-law) and thus Jesus’s aunt.

We don’t pretend to offer definitive solutions in our book, but I thought it might be helpful for those preaching or thinking through this material to highlight the relevant entries in our reference guide at the end of the book. There is more information on these important women than we have often recognized.

1. Joanna (wife of Chuza)

Among the first women to discover the empty tomb (Luke 24:10), she was the wife of Chuza, the household manager or steward of King Herod Antipas (Luke 8:3).

She was a follower of Jesus and helped to provide financially for Jesus’s ministry, along with Susanna and many others (Luke 8:3).

2. Mary Magdalene

A Galilean woman probably from the town of Magdala (on the west bank of the Sea of Galilee). Jesus delivered her from seven demons (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9).

She became a follower of Jesus (Matt. 27:57), a witness to the crucifixion and burial (Matt. 27:61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; John 19:25), and was among the women who went to the tomb on Sunday (Mark 16:1; John 20:1).

She was the first person to see Jesus alive (Mark 16:9) and told the other disciples (Luke 24:10; John 20:18).

3. Mary (mother of Jesus, widow of Joseph of Nazareth)

She gave birth to Jesus, raised him, was present at his execution and burial, and witnessed his resurrection life.

From the cross Jesus entrusted his widowed mother to John’s care, and she went to live in his home ( John 19:25-27)—perhaps because Mary’s other sons were not yet believers ( John 7:5; see also Matt. 13:57; Mark 3:21, 31; 6:4).

Mary’s other sons (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:2-3; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:4-5; Gal. 1:19) were named:

  • James (author of the biblical book of James)
  • Joseph/Joses
  • Simon
  • Judas/Jude (author of the biblical book of Jude)

She also had at least two daughters (Mark 6:3).

4. Mary (mother of James and Joses/Joseph)

A witness of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection appearances.

Her sons were named James the Younger (hence her husband must have been named James) and Joses/Joseph. See Matt. 27:61; 27:56; Mark 15:40, 47.

The fact that two Marys in the story have sons with the same names (James and Joseph/Joses) shows the commonality of certain names in first-century Galilee. The name Mary, in particular, was exceedingly common in first-century Palestine, hence the need to distinguish between different Marys in the Gospels, whether by way of their hometown (Mary Magdalene) or in association with their husband (Mary of Clopas) or sons (Mary mother of James and Joses).

5. Mary (wife of Clopas)

A Galilean witness of Jesus’s crucifixion, she may be identified as Jesus’s “mother’s sister” ( John 19:25)—though see discussion under Salome below.

According to Hegesippus, as quoted by the historian Eusebius, Clopas was the brother of Joseph of Nazareth (Hist. Eccl. 3.11; 3.32.6; 4.22.4). If so, Mary and Clopas were Jesus’s aunt and uncle. Their son Simeon (Jesus’s cousin) became a leader of the Jerusalem church succeeding James the brother of Jesus.

6. Salome (mother of James and John)

One of Jesus’s female followers in Galilee, she witnessed the crucifixion and went to the tomb on Sunday (Mark 15:40; 16:1).

The parallel passage in Matthew 27:56 makes it likely that she is the mother of the sons of Zebedee (i.e., James and John).

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